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UNC softball coach pushes team to new heights during first season as head coach

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The UNC softball team huddles with head coach Megan Smith Lyon during the softball game against Lipscomb at Anderson Softball Stadium on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. UNC won 12-4.

The North Carolina women’s softball team posted its first winning season in five years after hiring new head coach and former Tar Heel Megan Smith Lyon last June. 

Despite falling to Notre Dame in the first round of the ACC tournament earlier in May in a 7-4 loss, the Tar Heels amassed a 30-20 record, going 10-14 in ACC games. With the new staff, UNC put together five ACC series victories, the first 30-win season since 2019 and the highest batting average in program history. 

Smith Lyon inherited the program from Donna Papa, who retired after 38 seasons with UNC. Smith Lyon said she focused on laying the foundation for a new culture to begin her tenure with North Carolina.

“We want to make sure that we’re building a family atmosphere, that we’re building relationships and that we’re giving our players a positive environment to thrive,” she said.

With an entirely new coaching staff comes new core values. Smith Lyon sought to make her team a family that would become unbreakable, tough, selfless and committed. Sanaa Thompson, an outfielder who just completed her first year at UNC, said these principles guided the Tar Heels throughout the season.

“We just committed ourselves to showing that in practice and games, and just making sure that we were on the same page really,” Thompson said.

These values helped the the team on the field, as North Carolina boasted a .347 batting average, while also sporting a .492 slugging percentage.

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UNC first-year outfielder Sanaa Thompson (19) hits a sideline drive during the softball game against UNC-Wilmington on Wednesday, Apr. 3, 2024, at the Anderson Softball Stadium. UNC lost 4-2.

Smith Lyon said she fixated on the fundamentals and the little details to achieve success. She also stressed to her players that getting good at-bats can prove to be as valuable as getting hits. Even though North Carolina ranked 17th in the nation in hits before the season concluded, the Tar Heels were sixth in on-base percentage at .421.

“We wanted them to retrain their thinking and start looking at themselves as working together as an offense, stringing together quality at-bats that put pressure on the other team that we felt would result in good outcomes and runs being on the board,” Smith Lyon said.

Smith Lyon said her players faced challenges at points in the season of remaining physically and mentally tough, while still avoiding being only result-oriented. She wants UNC to adopt a winning mindset and to be more offensively disciplined. Her players need to execute game plans and not give in to pitchers at the plate. 

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UNC senior infielder Skyler Brooks (24) dives for third base during the softball game against Lipscomb at Anderson Softball Stadium on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. UNC won 12-4.

“I think the next step for us is to really lock in on the decision-making process as hitters [and] the pitch selection process,” she said. “I think one thing that held us back this year a little bit was our decision-making at the plate.”

During her own campaign at UNC from 1996-99, Smith Lyon served as a team captain in her senior year and still has her name in the record books for being sixth in career assists. The North Carolina alumna came from Marshall where she spent five years. During her last season with the Herd, she collected a program-record 45 wins, reached a 23-game winning streak and coached a record five first-team all-Sun Belt players.

At North Carolina this season, Smith Lyon produced three all-ACC selections, including second-team honorees Abby Settlemyre and Autumn Owen. Thompson earned all-freshman honors and outfielder Alex Coleman picked up National Fastpitch Coach’s Association Division 1 Southeast all-region team honors.

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UNC junior outfielder Alex Coleman (3) during the softball game against Lipscomb at Anderson Softball Stadium on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. UNC won 12-4

North Carolina graduated five true seniors and four graduate students. UNC will look to add some pieces through the transfer portal in addition to its  incoming 2028 class. Over the past two weeks, first-year outfielder Jadyn Howell re-signed with UNC and graduate infielder Grace Jackson transferred from Princeton to become a Tar Heel. 

Thompson said accomplishing a winning season is the first step toward larger goals for UNC softball. She now hopes to advance out of the ACC tournament to the NCAA Regional Championships — a feat the Tar Heels have not completed since 2019

“I think we’re going be a threat next year and I think a lot of people aren’t expecting it, so we’re excited to shock some people,” Thompson said.

@meganosmithh

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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